The alert from the National Weather Service came on the afternoon of Wednesday Feb. 5, the day before the storm was set to hit:
ALERT: The threat for heavy and/excessive rainfall will be on the increase Thursday morning.
*Rapid rises on streams and creeks are likely to occur along with the threat of flooded roads. Flooding is also likely to occur on larger rivers.
By the following day, as a torrent of rainwater pummeled Greenville and the surrounding counties, creeks and river water rose onto roadways. Homes and businesses flooded. The city of Greenville, having already activated its Emergency Operations Center, dispatched firefighters and police officers to handle downed power lines and rescue operations. About 30 workers at Mosaic Color and Additives on Sulphur Springs Road had to be rescued after the high waters of the Reedy River inundated the only road to safety.
Meanwhile, in Falls Park, an individual known only as “kayak guy” rode his kayak down the frothing brown rapids of the Reedy River, a feat that earned him accolades on social media, despite the stunt being illegal under city ordinance.
Eventually the storm passed, and Friday morning arrived with quiet birdsong. The rain had ceased. Rivers and creeks still ran high but had begun to ease back to normal levels. With nothing but wind trailing behind it, the storm was officially over, with no serious injuries or fatalities reported in Greenville. Things had, it seemed, returned to normal.
Until the next storm, that is.
Everything is connected
Frank Holleman, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, says anyone with open eyes can see how development is proceeding at “an incredibly rapid pace.”
“And that’s especially the case in and around Greenville,” Holleman said.
As a lawyer focused on environmental issues, Holleman has been working in Greenville since the early 1980s. Back then, Holleman remembers how the Reedy River would turn green and blue from pollutants dumped upstream by manufacturing plants. Since those days, the river has been cleaned up significantly, and Holleman himself has become a national authority on environmental issues, having appeared on 60 Minutes and addressed Congress.
Now Holleman sees expanding development as the most significant environmental issue affecting the Upstate today.
“Accelerating development near major rivers and lakes, and even in some of those protected headwaters, can adversely affect the quality of our waterways for a generation or even longer,” Holleman said.
The problem is not unique to the Upstate. A 2018 report from the University of Maryland noted that nationwide “aging and inadequate infrastructure, coupled with rapid land development, increased the amount of storm runoff to already stressed drainage systems.” The report went on to mention both Hurricane Harvey’s impact on Texas and Luisiana and Hurricane Florence’s impact on the Carolinas, noting that although the storms “will be remembered as hurricanes, in many cases it was the intense rainfall that brought urban areas to a standstill, overwhelming homes and transportation arteries with flood water.”
Heavy rains are only projected to get worse. In the southeast specifically, the amount of rainfall during heavy storms has increased by 27 percent since 1958, according to an Environmental Protection Agency report. That same report notes the area is expected to see increases in “humidity, average rainfall, and the frequency of heavy rainstorms” moving forward. Echoing those predictions, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration specifically noted in South Carolina’s state summary that “extreme precipitation is projected to increase.”
The increased rainfall comes as South Carolina, and the Upstate in particular, see ever-expanding urban development. That development, by its very existence, destroys an ecosystem’s natural stormwater management system, replacing natural green space with impermeable surfaces like concrete and pavement.
The scale of the development is often hard to grasp, according to Erika Hollis, clean water director with Upstate Forever, a Greenville-based conservation nonprofit.
For comparison, every single day in the Upstate the amount of land paved over for development is equivalent to all of Haywood Mall — and that’s including the mall’s parking lots as well, according to a report from Upstate Forever. Within the next two decades, the report notes, the development footprint in the Upstate will have doubled, with new paved areas accounting for an area larger than all of Spartanburg County.
And the majority of this growth, Hollis said, is projected to be within Greenville County.
Beyond the visual impact of trees and nature being paved over, development expansion has far more unseen consequences, which can multiply throughout the entirety of the water system.
Hollis said even seemingly insignificant waterways, like tiny creeks or streams, are instrumental in ensuring a healthy water system. Everything is connected, she said, and even if one small creek is paved over, the entire natural flow of the water can be interrupted. Because impermeable surfaces like pavement do not allow rainwater and other fluids to absorb back into the soil, stormwater runs off the land at a greater volume and higher velocity than it naturally should.
The problem is exacerbated by the pollutants present at the development itself, like fertilizer, pesticides, pet waste, heavy metals, litter and sediment — the latter of which is especially dangerous, Hollis said, because carcinogenic particles attach themselves to sediment.
“The water picks up all that stuff, washes it into the nearest river, and when it rains heavily you can cause the banks to cave in, leading to flooding, while carrying all those pollutants at the same time,” Hollis said.
Given the gushing water of the Reedy River during the most recent storm, “kayak guy” might have more things to worry about than just breaking a city ordinance.
“An urgent need to act quickly”
Despite their concerns, both Hollis and Holleman remain hesitantly optimistic.
Holleman can point to many successes in the past few decades: the protection of the Table Rock Reservoir and North Saluda Reservoir; the devoted efforts by local stakeholders to clean the Reedy River; and the greater public involvement in environmental issues as a whole.
“But I also feel there’s an urgent need to act quickly,” Holleman said, noting that unless proper action is taken, unimpeded development could wreak irrevocable havoc on Greenville’s water systems.
Independent groups are already taking heed of that urgency, according to Hollis.
The Reedy River Water Quality Group, of which Upstate Forever has been a participant for the past five years, is finalizing a study focused on the economic and environmental benefits of expanding buffer zones along waterways. Those buffer zones — natural wooded areas and vegetation along waterways on either side — prevent banks from caving in and causing sediment runoff during heavy rains.
(The city of Houston, in response to the intense flooding from Hurricane Harvey, is in the process of implementing similar “green stormwater infrastructure” like green roofs, rain gardens and permeable pavement.)
The city already requires stream buffers beyond state and federal requirements, while the county discussed an ordinance in 2018 that would have mandated all new developments near large watersheds leave 100 feet of buffer along waterways. Despite the ordinance being tabled due to financial concerns from developers, Hollis is optimistic the report from the Reedy River Water Quality Group will be a strong argument for increased buffer zones as a part of the Unified Development Ordinance process next year.
“I think elected officials are really starting to reflect the views of the community residents who are more and more concerned about environmental quality, water protection, open green space and overall quality of life,” Holleman said.
If he imagines the best-case scenario, what Holleman sees is a ribbon of green snaking through the developed land of Greenville. Wherever a river or creek flows, so too grow healthy wooded areas and habitats along with it, he said.
“Not only would we have that sensible way to manage our stormwater so we don’t have damaging floods every time it rains, but we also have all this protected land for people to enjoy,” Holleman said. “That’s the kind of community we want our grandchildren to live in.